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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
     Medes and Persians
     Cyrus the Great
     The Persian empire
     The Persian army
     Persian couriers
     The architecture of empire
     Persian carpets

Rivalries with Greece
Parthians and Byzantines
Turks and Mongols
To be completed

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The Medes and the Persians: from the 9th century BC

Of the two main Indo-European tribes moving south into Iran, it is at first the Medes who play the dominant role. With a capital at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), they establish themselves as powerful neighbours of Assyria. In 612 they combine with Babylon to sack the Assyrian capital at Nineveh. Their spoils are northern Assyria and much of Anatolia, where the Halys river becomes the border between themselves and Lydia.

The Medes already control much of Iran including Fars, in the southwest. This is the heartland of the Parsa or Persians, whose king is a vassal of the Medes - and from whose name the region has until recently been known as Persia in the west.


Cyrus the Great: 559-530 BC

The balance between the Medes and the Persians rapidly changes after Cyrus II becomes king of the Persians in 559 BC. He rebels against the Medes in 553. Three years later he captures their king and their capital city, Ecbatana. He then presses west to secure and expand his new empire. He seizes the Lydian capital, Sardis, in 546, together with Croesus, its famously rich king. His armies then continue west to dominate the Greek cities of Ionia, extending his power to the shores of the Aegean.

Babylon and Mesopotamia fall to him next, in 539. The basis of the first Persian empire (the Achaemenid empire) has been set in place within a mere eleven years of Cyrus defeating the Medes. He has earned his title 'the Great'.


Cyrus is a politician as well as a conqueror. He presents himself as liberator of Babylon, releasing the people from the yoke of an unpopular king, and he is received as such. He makes a point of respecting the Babylonian religion. He allows the Jews to return from their Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, and encourages the rebuilding of their Temple.

There is in these actions a genuine basis for his reputation. But Cyrus also uses propaganda more successively than any previous ruler, to spread and reinforce his fame. People succumb to this conqueror partly because they believe it in their interest to do so.


Cyrus dies in 530, campaigning against nomadic tribesmen in the northeast, near the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers. He is buried in the place which he has made his capital, Pasagardae.

His tomb, massive but superbly simple, stands today as an impressive monument to the emperor - though now in parched surroundings where once everything was well watered, in an early version of a Persian garden. Its interior, in which the body lies in a gold sarcophagus on a gold couch, is broken into and stripped two centuries after his death during the campaign of Alexander the Great.


The brief reign of Cyrus's son, Cambyses II, includes another important extension of the empire. He defeats the Egyptians in battle, at Pelusium in 525, and enters their capital city at Memphis. Egypt becomes the province of a Persian satrap.

In Cambyses' absence the throne in Persia is seized by a rebel. On the way home to challenge him, Cambyses dies. A cousin of his leads the attack, kills the impostor and takes the throne. He is Darius.


Darius: 522-486 BC

During the long rule of Darius I, the conquests of Cyrus and Cambyses are consolidated and the Achaemenid empire reaches its greatest extent - from Macedonia in the west to northern India in the east. Never before has such a large area, including so many people of different cultures and traditions, been controlled under a single system.

The genius of Darius lies in creating a workable structure for the empire. This depends on such details as a sustainable system of taxation; a communication network based on good roads and efficient message-carrying; a single language, Aramaic, used in government documents throughout the empire; and firm control in the armed forces.


The Persian empire: c.500 BC

The Persian system of taxation is tailored to each satrapy (the area ruled by a satrap, or provincial governor). At differing times there are between 20 and 30 satrapies in the empire, and each is assessed according to its supposed productivity. It is the responsibility of the satrap to collect the due amount and to send it to the emperor, after deducting his expenses. (The expenses, and the power of deciding precisely how and from whom to raise the money in the province, offer maximum opportunity for rich pickings.)

The quantities demanded from the various provinces give a vivid picture of their economic potential.


Babylon is assessed for the highest amount, and for a startling mixture of commodities - 1000 silver talents, four months' supply of food for the army, and 500 eunuchs. India, clearly, is already fabled for its gold; the province is to supply gold dust equal in value to the very large amount of 4680 silver talents. Egypt is known for the wealth of its crops; it is to be the granary of this empire (as later of Rome's) and is required to provide 120,000 measures of grain in addition to 700 talents of silver.

This is exclusively a tax levied on subject peoples. Persians and Medes pay no tax. But they are liable at any time to serve in the army.


The Persian army: c.500 BC

The regular army of the Persian empire contains an elite corps involving a brilliant element of propaganda. These crack troops are known as the Immortals, for the simple and inspired reason that there are always 10,000 of them (in theory as soon as one dies, another soldier is ready to take his place). At the heart of this 10,000 are an even more special thousand - the royal bodyguard.

The army is precisely decimal. Divisions of 10,000 are divided into battalions of 1000, companies of 100 and squads of 10. The bow is the chief Persian weapon, and the armies' tactics are based on rapid movement and light armour.


Imperial communication: 522-486 BC

Darius extends the network of roads across the Persian empire, to enable both troops and information to move with startling speed. At the centre of the system is the royal road from Susa to Sardis, a distance of some 2000 miles (3200 km). At intervals of a day's ride there are posting stations, where new men and fresh horses will be available at any moment to carry a document on through the next day's journey. The Greek historian Herodotus marvels at these Persian couriers.

By this method a message can travel the full distance of the road in ten days, at a speed of about 200 miles a day. A similar road goes down through Syria to the Mediterranean coast and Egypt. Another goes east to India.


Many different tongues are spoken in the Persian empire, from Egypt to India. But all the official messages travelling on the imperial roads are in one language, Aramaic. This Semitic tongue, deriving from a tribe in northern Syria, first spreads through Assyria. Then Babylonian merchants carry it further afield until, by the 6th century, it is in general use as a Lingua franca throughout Mesopotamia.

As a language for the Persian civil service, Aramaic also has a practical advantage. It uses the Phoenician alphabet, a language to which it is related. So its letters can be written on papyrus (easily portable) instead of needing to be pressed with a cuneiform stylus into wet clay.


The architecture of empire: 522-486 BC

As well as setting in place the administrative structure of the empire (and adopting Zoroastrianism as the state religion), Darius proves himself the greatest builder of the Achaemenid dynasty. In 521 he moves his capital to Susa, building there an audience hall and a palace. An inscription found at Susa reveals his pride in his far-flung empire of craftsmen.

In 518 he moves them all - stone cutters, masons, carpenters, sculptors - some 250 miles (400 km) to the southeast, to start work on an even grander creation. It will become known to history by its Greek name, Persepolis, the city of the Persians.


Persian carpets: 6th century BC

Persian emperors of the 6th century BC are among the first to make a display of lavish floor coverings. Carpets becomes one of the characteristic art forms of people living on the high plateau of west Asia, from Turkey through Iran, where winters can be extremely cold.

They are a particularly important form of wealth and comfort for the nomadic tribes which live in these regions and in the steppes to the north. One of the earliest true carpets to survive (woven with a knotted pile, and Persian in origin) belongs to a tribal ruler in about 500 BC. It is discovered in his frozen tomb at Pazyryk.


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